Paralympics showcases innovations in Additive Manufacturing space

Advantage Engineering - Paralympics Showcases Additive ManufacturingThe Paralympic Games have always been about resilience. In the past five years, the event has also thrown the spotlight on innovations in the prosthetics and orthotics space.

The media caught wind of this when German athlete Denise Schindler debuted the world’s first 3D printed prosthetic leg at the Paralympic Games in 2016. In 2018, Team USA’s Mike Schulz used a 3D printed snowboarding prosthetic – and the media was excited again. Since then, time and time again, 3D printing has proven itself as the go-to technology to bring world-class, cutting-edge prosthetics to life.

At the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games (August/September 2021), the emphasis will be on the different sports. Executives in the medical devices industry – especially in prosthetics and orthotics – will, however, keep an eye on the latest and greatest showcased by the Paralympians. Their enthusiasm will be shared by a wider group of prosthetics users as well.

Anyone who relies on prosthetics will tell you that form, fit, and function are critical to gaining back any degree of mobility. For sportspersons, there needs to be a perfect balance. It is how records are broken and medals are won.

Truth be told, the prosthetics we see on athletes at the Paralympics are often made using a combination of materials and technologies. Carbon fiber composites, CNC machined parts, injection molding and multi jet fusion (a popular 3D printing / additive manufacturing process) are usually in the mix, in one combination or another.

From an insider’s perspective, researchers often rely on multi-jet fusion (MJF) to do a lion’s share of the work when it comes to delivering great fit, form, and function. In fact, multi jet fusion is what makes many new-age prosthetics possible.

HP, who owns nearly 5,000 related and 100 direct patents related to multi jet fusion highlights that the technology makes it possible to design specific features such as lattices and meshes, which can help modify the performance and material properties of a part by increasing stiffness, reducing weight, and enhancing breathability.

Another feature of multi jet fusion is ‘part consolidation’. On the face of it, part consolidation doesn’t sound like much, but it makes it possible to reduce the weight of the prosthetics which directly impacts the performance of athletes. For those making the prosthetics, part consolidation of course means a decrease in the amount of assembly work, a decrease in rework, and an elimination of dependency on multiple suppliers.

Finally, multi jet fusion also makes it possible to design medical devices with variable wall structures so as to better control the stiffness and strength of the final device. This helps reduce the weight of prosthetics while providing greater stiffness in areas where support is required as well as greater flexibility in other areas for improved comfort – all of which are big wins for athletes looking for better performance through their prosthetics.

Ultimately, multi jet fusion (MJF) and other 3D printing / additive manufacturing processes help athletes push the boundaries, and we’re seeing just that at the Paralympic Games this year.


3D printing helps meet demand for better prosthetics & orthotics

Developing prosthetics is challenging. While Paralympic athletes have the support of dozens of clinicians, technicians, and other experts, everyday people don’t – and 3D printing / additive manufacturing can change that.

High-definition 3D cameras scan the human body perfectly to ensure every contour is captured. Sophisticated modeling software and high-end printers that use materials tested and certified to be safe when in contact with human skin for long durations are used to deliver the perfect prosthetic or orthotic.

The traditional way to build such medical devices is time consuming and expensive, and it isn’t precise. This means, every unit needs to be tested and reworked, sometimes more than once. Multi jet fusion and other technologies, on the other hand, can streamline the traditional workflow significantly and deliver perfectly fit, form, and function every single time.


Advantage Engineering traditional vs streamlined HP 3D printing


Honestly, there’s a need for change in the prosthetics & orthotics market. In developed markets such as the US, Canada, and Europe, medical professionals are leaning towards additively manufactured solutions for more and more patients every day.

According to market research firms, the global orthotics and prosthetics market is expected to reach US$6.25 billion this year and is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.8% up to 2030.

While a majority of that demand will be met using large volume production technologies such as injection molding or use carbon fiber composites, niche markets will see more people opt for custom prosthetics and orthotics, produced on-demand and made to specifications, for more comfort and much better overall mobility.


Partners can accelerate innovation in the prosthetics & orthotics space

The average prosthetic arm or leg costs US$5,000. As the medical device gets more sophisticated, the price goes manifold, sometimes up to US$200,000.

Orthotic devices often cost about US$2,000 as well. Of course, insurance companies subsidize the costs, as do government funding and so on, but the reality is that the industry has a need for better solutions that are more cost effective. Additive manufacturing provides those solutions.

Some of the best prosthetics and orthotics companies in the world leverage HP’s multi jet fusion printers to manufacture custom-made medical devices for patients every day. For companies that can’t invest in commercial 3D printers immediately or for those still developing the product, working with a partner is a great idea.

Advantage Engineering, for example, has experience developing and producing prosthetics and orthotics using its HP multi jet fusion printers.

Our team is well equipped to not only support prototyping of such medical devices but also able to advise on modelling, developing, and testing of these products. Given our relations in the industry, we’re also able to provide guidance on the materials that need to be used for production.

A partner like Advantage Engineering can be very helpful to not just established players looking to grow their product line or portfolio quickly but also medical professionals, qualified individuals, and entrepreneurs looking to get into the business to fill a gap – supporting those that need better prosthetics and orthotics – and perhaps, fueling the dreams of the next generation of Paralympians.